I have been exposed to a large number of kids menus and I can honestly tell you, that once you see one, you’ve seen them all! Why is this?
Children usually don’t have developed taste buds. This is certainly true in some cases, but not always fact. Let’s backtrack a little.
According to Nutrition Australia, the first three years of a child’s life are the most crucial in determining their future food preferences and eating patterns. From the very beginning of life, babies are attracted to sweet flavours (like breast milk) and they also like salty tastes. They dislike sour and bitter tastes. They have a preference for familiar tastes over new tastes, which explains why introducing new foods to toddlers can be challenging.
Limiting a child’s exposure to sweet and salty foods will help prevent them developing a taste of these foods. Exposing children to new food can take up to 15 tries and if we offer the most nourishing types of food all the time, then we are assisting them develop a taste for a healthy diet. Exposing children to food is more than taste buds, they also rely on smell and visual cues to decide if a food tastes good.
Why is this important knowledge for restaurants?
Firstly, it confirms that most of the offerings on a kids menu are favoured by children. Most young children will eat chicken nuggets and chips. When dining out is a treat for a family, then this is an acceptable choice for their children to eat. For parents that practice good eating habits at home and want to continue these habits in a restaurant, the kids menu falls short.
In most cases, it is the parent deciding for the child, therefore it’s important that there is flexibility within the restaurant to offer alternatives such as salad or vegetables instead of chips or grilled options for proteins. Children are not motivated by health and only taste/smell.
Secondly, there is a big push from Maternal Health Nurses, Paediatricians and the likes, to introduce children to healthy family foods early. Parents opt to introduce their babies to solids with either puree then finger foods or only finger foods (better known as Baby Led Weaning). Both methods introduce babies to different tastes, but most noticeably the introduction to different texture and presentation may be earlier with BLW.
I have used both approaches with my children and I feel they are best dictated by the child and parental preference. It’s important to confirm a child needs to be exposed at least 15 times to a food to accept it. Fussiness can also increase when alternative meals are provided if a child rejects a meal. The attitude towards food demonstrated by the parents at the table, has a huge impact on children and can also cause challenges.
Finally, it’s important for restaurants to clearly understand that there is a need for traditional kid menu offerings, but also healthier options.
Traditional Kids Meal Offerings
I have surveyed around 100 parents and in detail I have discussed the needs of families. There was a range of children under the age of 12. Many of the children over 8 “graduated” to the main menu and entree dishes were offered or they would order/share from the main menu amongst the table.
These are the meals that children have the highest preference towards. Many parents have addressed their concerns that they would prefer their child eat something else.
– Chicken Nuggets with Chips: This one came back with a vote of 71. The children love the saltiness of these items and usually the chicken is quite processed. Many parents said that their children will only eat chicken nuggets made from chicken breast. There was definitely a divide on this one. It was also mentioned multiple times that parents would also request vegetables or salad, together with chips.
– Battered Fish & Chips: This one came back with a vote of 33. Parents were able to vote for multiple choices. Many of the points raised with chicken nuggets were relevant to this dish.
– Pasta (Bolognase or Napoli): This one came back with a vote of 29. There wasn’t much discussion on this particular offering.
– Pizza (Topping varies): This one came back with a vote of 26.
Noticeably, there was not much preference towards crumbed chicken and chips or burgers.
Why is this information relevant to you? Don’t take the top winners off your menu. It’s important that your offerings reflect your values towards food in your whole menu.
Alternative menu offerings
This section reflects the need from parents to have healthier options for their children. These parents may completely avoid the kids menu or they might make requests to grill the protein and substitute sides. If you’re receiving these requests, you should consider amendments to your kids menu.
A lot of negative comments were raised towards kids menus only being deep fried, processed, not real food or the texture of cat food. A lot of parents reject kids menus because they feel the offerings on the adults menu are more appropriate food choices for their children.
We received a lot of suggestions and the top 8 tips to improve kid’s menus:
– Offer grilled chicken and/or fish. If you’re crumbing or battering during service time, then this should be an option on your menu. We have seen multiple kids menus listing both options! Well done!!!
– Don’t charge extra for substitutions, if you already have it on your menu. No doubt you have already prepped vegetables or salad, so don’t make it difficult for parents to opt for healthy options.
– Offer kid serving sizes from the main menu.This shouldn’t be difficult for many options on your menu. Train your staff to offer suggestions that are suitable to cook in smaller portions. If you offer a seniors menu, consider it to be available to children.
– Consider an antipasto board for the kids. Think cheese, crackers, dips, cut veggies and deli meats. This is a very great option for fussy eaters, who may only enjoy one or two items, because it exposes them to more food. There are so many variations on this that will suit your current menu offerings!
– RICE!! Where is it? Think of some great dishes you could add to the kids menu with rice or offer it as a side!
– Kids can be adventurous too. Many parents are dining or cooking various cuisines of the world. Mild curries are a huge hit for young children and kids love playing with food. Think of items that they can dip, use their hands or assemble.
– Dessert. Where’s the fruit? How about some fruit with ice cream?
– Presentation is everything! Have fun with plating. Wow the kids too! Think bento boxes, skewers or baskets, but make them kid friendly!
Special dietary requirements
There has been an increase of allergies in young children. Cows Milk Protein Intolerance/Allergy is on the rise and a large percent of children are also affected by soy milk. Many parents find it difficult to find dairy AND soy free meals, for both themselves and their child.
Allergies are always worrisome for both parents and restaurants when dining out, especially when the allergy is severe. We can’t offer advice on this area, but suggest you seek out Food Allergy Training if you want to be allergy friendly.
Vegetarian and vegans often find there are minimal or no options for vegan or vegetarian options on the kids menu. I understand it’s difficult to cater to everyone, but in this case it would be worthwhile suggestion a smaller version of a vegan or vegetarian main meal.
Where to from here?
Has this post questioned the offerings on your kids menu? I hope so! It’s time to move forward with the changing needs of families.
You might have an idea from reading this on what changes to make. But if you’re starting from scratch or scratching your head, you should consult a nutritionist to assist with planning the kids menu!